Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Clarissa Smith Williams, 1859-1930
By Sigrun Payne, student, University of Puget Sound
Clarissa Smith Williams is a name that carries significant weight, both in the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints and in the history of the state of Utah. She was born to an immensely important family, as her father was a first cousin of Joseph Smith, the great Prophet of the Church. Devoted to her church and her faith, she dedicated her life to service, working with the Church's Relief Society from the age of sixteen.
Williams was born in 1859 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her parents were already influential members of the church. Her father, George A. Smith, was a church historian and later first counselor to Brigham Young, President of the Priesthood, an organizational structure within the Church. Her mother, Susan E. West Smith, was a respected Temple worker. In 1875 she graduated from the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah, with a degree in education. She used that knowledge to successfully run a private school and later teach in public schools around Utah. She married in 1877 and had eleven children, three of whom died prior to adulthood.
Williams' work with the Relief Society took her on travels around the United States and around the world. It led to her involvement with the National Council of Women, a pro-suffrage organization with which the Relief Society was affiliated. She attended multiple congresses of the National Council of Women as the Relief Society delegate and worked with many other women to develop plans for the advancement of women, including helping women gain the vote. Williams even attended a congress of the International Council of Women in 1914 in Rome, Italy as one of the delegates from the United States. She dedicated much of her life to the advancement of women's rights, working in many different women's organizations including the Utah Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Utah Society of the Daughters of the Pioneers, and the Women's Civic Center.
During World War I, Williams was appointed chairman of the Women's Committee National Council of Defense for the state of Utah. She was also appointed chairman for women's work for the state of Utah and appointed a member of the executive committee of the State Council of Defense by the Governor of Utah. Her extensive political involvement in Utah and the United States was uncommon for women of her time, yet her dedication and relentless work ethic enabled her to effectively balance work and family.
No organization benefited more from Williams's intelligence and competence than the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Before becoming general president, Williams served as first counselor to her immediate predecessor, Emmeline B. Wells. Wells was a staunch suffragist and believed in women's education and literacy. Williams was close to Wells, and she was inspired by Wells's life's work. Williams said of Wells, "it is a monument worthy of any woman or any man, for that matter, the work which she has accomplished". Williams was certainly inspired by Wells' work, which led her to her own involvement with organizations like the National Council of Women. Williams eventually spoke at Wells's funeral.
Williams became the sixth general president of the Relief Society on April 1, 1921. All previous presidents of the Society were also related to the Prophet Joseph Smith, with the exception of Emmeline B. Wells. In addition to her mountain of service work, Williams wrote many editorials for the Relief Society Magazine, which published information about the Society's efforts as well as educational information for women and for members of the Church. Williams was known for her unfaltering competence and impassioned dedication to her work, as well as the compassion with which she regarded everyone she knew, especially her family. She died on March 8, 1930.
Relief Society Magazine, 1921
"Death of President Emmeline B. Wells and Appointment of Clarissa Smith Williams", pg 319
Susa Young Gates, "Literature in the Relief Society", pg 331
Clarissa Smith Williams, "General Conference of Relief Society", pgs 351-352
Clarissa Smith Williams, "Funeral Services of President Emmeline B. Wells", pg 357
"Our New Presidency and General Board", pgs 378-380
Relief Society Magazine, 1922
Clarissa Smith Williams, Jennie B. Knight, and Louise Y. Robison, "Greeting", pg 4
"Clarissa Smith Williams", https://www.reliefsocietywomen.com/blog/2009/09/07/clarissa-smith-williams/
"Clarissa West Smith (1859-1930)", http://mormonbiography.org/Clarissa_West_Smith_(1859-1930)